By Joan Baxter
February 18, 2018
This has been adapted from Chapter 21 of my book, “A Serious Pair of Shoes: An African Journal,” published in 2000 in Canada. I am publishing it again now after being inspired by a fascinating BBC article about Babani Sissoko, “The playboy who got away with $242 million – using black magic,” by Brigitte Scheffer.
Bamako, Mali. First came a couple of his more modest jetliners, a Fokker and a Boeing, screaming in for touchdown on the overheated runway. Then, from out of the wild blue yonder ‑ or to be precise, the brown dusty haze ‑ came that monstrous, white 747 barrelling in to land. The hot blasts of wind threatened to remove my skirt and blow it all the way to Timbuktu. I put my notebook away with a sigh, clutched at my skirt, and moseyed along after the throng already off and running towards the jumbo that had brought their prodigal son back home.
Here was Babani Sissoko, a mystery man who had reportedly left Mali penniless a decade earlier, now arriving direct from Miami with his own fleet of planes from his own personal airline, which was named after his native village. He had just been released from prison in Florida, where he’d done time, charged with attempting to bribe American customs officials to expedite the export of two military helicopters to Africa.
Ex‑con, yes, but also a hero. He’d made headlines in the US by handing out huge sums of money to charities or anyone that took his fancy ‑ school marching bands or disadvantaged children or just women he met on the street or in expensive jewellery boutiques in Miami or New York. And now he was coming home, bringing with him ‑ so it was said ‑ billions of dollars.
It was Friday morning, November 21, 1997. Word had it that there would be another jumbo landing on Sunday. That one would be bringing his luggage‑ luxury cars, construction equipment and lavish gifts that he was going to give away to his own people.
All this talk of billions of dollars was going on in Bamako, capital of Mali. At this time, Mali was officially the third monetarily poorest country in the world. Yes, the country was rich in history and culture, but there was precious little material wealth the average person could actually put their hands on.
It was hot. It was dusty. Half the country was already buried under the sands of the Sahara Desert and that morning I had the impression there was enough of that sand blowing in the wind to bury the other half ‑ perhaps by nightfall. And for heaven’s sake, this was Bamako International Airport. Just a single overheated runway, a windsock that was being blown to bits and a low‑slung ramshackle and inglorious terminal building, all surrounded by dry, scrubby grassland.
Bringing home billions?
The farthest cry from Miami and an incongruous setting for those airliners. Thousands of people had already broken through the arms of the policemen who had tried in vain to form a human barricade by stringing themselves out across the blazing tarmac. That excited human scramble had caught me up and was now moving me at a run across the sun‑softened black pavement.
Some there were his family. Some were his friends. But the majority were just Malians hoping to be there when Babani (as he was affectionately known) arrived in a blaze of sun and glory, lured to the spectacle by big dreams of a little wealth ‑ which they hoped he would toss their way. A very few of us, of course, were just on the trail of a story.
I have to admit that the whole thing ‑ Babani himself ‑ took me completely by surprise. I had thought ‑ silly me ‑ that this would be just another little Friday story, a ninety‑second report for BBC on an intriguing man. Lend him my ears, eyes and microphone for a few minutes, write up a colourful little tale, file it and be done with it.
I had headed out to the airport in the morning, doubting that he would even show. He had been the talk of the country for weeks; there was no one indifferent to the local boy who’d made good ‑ or at least rich. On every street corner where people gathered each day to discuss life in their habitual chat groups, in every market stall, in every household, his name alone sparked off heated debate that could last for hours or days. One school of thought said he obviously worked for the Devil who paid him handsomely for evil deeds ‑ how else could he have grown so rich so fast? Another view, prevalent among those who planned to camp out in front of his house until they received cash from him, was that his money was clean. They maintained that he worked with God, who paid him handsomely for good deeds.
Still the question begged: what deeds? The local radio stations filled hours and hours with speculative debate that turned in circles and made me dizzy. Everyone was fascinated by Babani’s rags‑to‑riches tale; he was living proof that even the wildest of human dreams could come true.
Latter-day Robin Hood?
But there was a powerful moralistic and religious bent in Mali that shaped public views on issues of right and wrong. Which meant the discussion always returned to that basic and worrisome point ‑ where did his money come from? If it came from outsmarting other shady billionaires or African heads of state who had themselves stolen it from the people, then Babani could, by some turns and twists of the imagination, be seen as a latter‑day Robin Hood. By this reasoning, it was only right that any money he had hoodwinked out of major crooks should be dished back out to its rightful owners ‑ the people. It looked like he might have outsmarted rich people in America and in the Middle East and that greatly tickled many Malians. This would be a novel turning of tables, reversing the usual direction of the money flow.
On the whole, though, most people were waiting anxiously for his return to see whether he was really going to do anything useful with his money, create local industries and jobs, for example, to develop the country ‑ which no jumbo jets full of Rolex watches or Mercedes were going to do.
For weeks, the local papers (mostly four‑ or six‑page tabloids) had been announcing in red banner headlines that today was the day Babani would arrive. For weeks he hadn’t shown up. And all the while, his legend was growing by leaps and bounds. Rumours flew and quickly transformed themselves into fact.
In Miami, it was said, he had rented the entire Intercontinental Hotel for a whole year to accommodate his ever‑growing entourage. He’d had his entire fleet of aircraft (fourteen in all) flown to Miami to ferry him and his wealth back home to Mali, and then been delayed for a full week ‑ wasting 9 million dollars of non‑accrued income from those planes.
He was said to have dealt gold and gems for the late President Mobutu of former Zaire. So some speculated that it had been his planes that had flown much of that gold out of the country in the final days of Mobutu’s regime, when they were supposed to have been on “goodwill missions” to rescue Malians and other West Africans from the turmoil in Kinshasa.
Then there was his legendary largesse. One story had him once giving a passing stranger in Miami a Rolls Royce, just because he felt like it. Another had him handing over his Jaguar or Rolls or Mercedes to a woman he met in a jewel shop in Miami. Fanciful stories, I thought. But then, I hadn’t seen anything ‑ not yet. I hadn’t been to the airport and I hadn’t seen the crowds. And I had yet to lay eyes on this man they called Babani.
By ten that Friday morning, there were already hundreds and hundreds of cars at the airport. Even the roads leading to the airport were filling up with hopeful onlookers. The parking lot behind the VIP lounge looked like a dealership for luxury cars ‑ Mercedes, BMWs, Cadillacs. These were all gifts that relatives and friends had received over the years from Babani. There were also a few armoured jeeps ‑ roguish‑looking black things with smoky windows that smacked of organized crime. Those, said Babani’s main legal man in Mali, Mamadou, were for transporting the vast sums of money that Babani was bringing with him.
Good at reading zeroes on cheques
Mamadou didn’t mind talking about his “billionaire” client, but warned me right at the start that the man was too big to fit neatly into anything but a very long book. He confirmed that Babani might indeed be a billionaire, in dollars, but that it would be hard to prove or disprove because he had no office and no formal records anywhere. He said his client kept all his records in his own head. Babani hadn’t had a day of formal education in his life and could not read a word.
“What he can read is the zeroes on cheques,” said the lawyer.
Babani, fifty‑six years old, hailed from Dabia, a village in western Mali. He was a member of a “caste,” which put him in a social class of griots. In Mali, where long‑ago yesterdays are still inseparable from today, griots have a very special and particular role in safeguarding tradition and history. The griots’ role has always been to sing praises of the “nobles,” recount history and the magnificent accomplishments of their noble ancestors in their society and in return the nobles were responsible for their well‑being.
For many of us strangers living in Mali, and that included friends from other African countries, this complex caste system was difficult to understand, if not incomprehensible. People of caste were still not permitted to marry nobles and noblesse was decided by your family name and the family into which you were born.
Non‑noble Malians, or those who were said to be “of caste” underneath the nobles, defended this system. They assured me that this built‑in social segregation was neither offensive nor unjust, as judgmental foreigners tended to believe. They said the roles played by each social group were complementary and that there was no real prejudice against ‑ looking down at ‑ people of “caste.” Those at the bottom had more freedom and were looked after by those on top. Those on top were obliged to behave and comport themselves in “noble” fashion, which included making sure that their social “inferiors” never went hungry.
That’s what I was told.
But what about Babani, who had sought out great riches that would give him powers and status well beyond those of most “nobles”?
Babani did nothing to try to hide his modest origins. In fact, he almost revelled in publicizing them. He had named his airline after his village. He was building a five‑star hotel on the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, to be named after his mother.
In the folklore that had grown up around Babani, it was said he began his “career” as a “houseboy” in Senegal. There, tired of sleeping on a straw mat on a hard mud floor, he had one day sneaked a lie‑down on his master’s soft bed. Apparently he found it to his liking and he set out on his adventures that would enable him to afford a bed like that. He moved from one country to another, at first in West Africa, and then far beyond.
One fable had him appearing for some years in a circus in China. Another had him passing through India and into the Middle East, where he allegedly worked his way into the good graces of sultans and sheikhs, by showing off his healing skills and powers as a Muslim mystic, or marabout.
People told me yarn after fuzzy yarn, many of them supposedly spun by Babani himself. None did a thing to solve any of the mystery that shrouded the man’s recent history and wealth.
A dam and a dream for his village
This wasn’t his first splashy arrival on home turf. Already ten years earlier, he had taken the people of Mali by storm when suddenly he appeared in his home village and told everyone there to lay down their hoes because he was going to build them villas, give them Mercedes and riches and look after them forever. Work had actually begun to transform a dusty village of mud huts into an American‑style suburb of villas and paved roads, when Babani found himself in trouble ‑ both legal and financial.
He had been embroiled in a court case, in which German contractors working on a mega‑hydro dam at Manantali in Mali accused him of making off with vast amounts of construction material and equipment for his town improvement project in his native village. But that wasn’t the worst of it. When he took on the construction of a Las Vegas‑style city out in the African hinterland, he had underestimated the tidal wave of need in the country. The population in the village suddenly exploded as people got wind of Babani’s project, and sometime in 1987, according to his lawyer, the money ran out and Babani did his first disappearing act.
“In fact, he didn’t disappear, he went to Kinshasa,” said his Malian lawyer. “He had about $100 in his pocket. The rest of his wealth was gone. But he booked himself into the most expensive hotel in town, not even knowing how he would pay for it. Then a gem dealer came to his door with a huge emerald he wanted Babani to help him sell.”
And that is how, according to Mamadou, the Malian wheeler‑dealer got back into business again. He reportedly sold the gem for three times its actual value, pocketed the profit and off he went. Touching down in capitals throughout Africa and the Middle East ‑ oil deals here, gems, arms or gold there, a couple of five‑star hotels here and there, an airline that spanned West Africa. He himself was quoted as saying the only things he wouldn’t deal were drugs.
The presidents of Gambia, Gabon and Togo were said to be his personal friends. He was said to know just about every head of state on the continent, and many off it. He apparently rubbed shoulders with individuals who ruled the globe from up there in the murky echelons of the super‑rich, where the definition of “clean money” can get so blurry. And on this basis, Malians defended him, their self‑made man. They maintained the only reason Babani was nabbed by the law or derided was that he was African and because he didn’t hide his wealth ‑ he gave it away.
The helicopter affair
Mamadou insisted that even though Babani had done time in prison, he’d not been guilty of attempting to corrupt American customs officials to export those military helicopters, not according to the rules that were generally applied ‑ or not applied ‑ to international military hardware deals at that level. The lawyer maintained that Babani hadn’t even been in Florida when the offence occurred; he’d been in Geneva. In Mamadou’s view, the whole thing had to do with a “misunderstanding” between Babani’s French agent who was handling the helicopter deal and the customs officials.
When the customs officials found fault with the documentation for the helicopters, the French man acting for Babani had done what came naturally to him and to anyone who dealt in Africa. He offered them a small sum to make it worth their while to overlook all the red tape. According to Mamadou, the customs men looked aghast at the agent’s offer. The agent interpreted the looks as dismay because the offer was too small. In front of the closed circuit televisions, he then rang Babani in Geneva on his cellular telephone and asked if he could up the offer. Mamadou said that Babani believed he was behaving like a true gentleman when he said to go ahead and give the customs officials what was needed. Next thing he knew, Babani was being extradited to the US to face trial and a possible sentence of forty‑five years for the offence. He was found guilty and sent to prison in Florida.
Babani was released after only four months. It was said that an “understanding” had been reached between the American authorities and the Malian government or the Gambian government (Babani carried both passports), that he would serve the rest of his sentence in Mali or Gambia.
Now this was plainly ludicrous. If the Malian authorities tried to lock up their prodigal son who was bringing his wealth back home to divvy up with his countrymen and women, they would be committing political suicide. Instead, they gave him a hero’s welcome.
That Friday morning of his homecoming, it looked as though Mali’s entire police force was on the streets to escort him safely through town, past frenzied crowds that lined the roads leading to one of his villas in a posh part of town.
Questions and no answers
At the airport, even Mali’s finest in their great numbers could do little to combat the chaos, or the seething mass of humanity desperate to get within arm’s reach of Babani as he came out of his jumbo jet. I had sauntered up behind the expectant multitudes, hoping there might be a chance to stick a microphone up there somewhere to catch a few words from The Man himself as he descended onto the blazing tarmac of his homeland after an absence of almost a decade.
No chance. And the problem wasn’t the crowd on the ground. It was those burly men who spewed out of the jumbo jet, muttering threats in Miami Vice accents, who began manhandling us all. Some had their grey hair pulled back in ponytails. Others wore crew cuts typical of bodyguards straight off the silver screen. Then came a long string of immaculately dressed young women, each worthy of a magazine cover all to herself, stepping daintily down the metal stairway from heaven while a television crew from Florida caught their every step on video.
They were followed by a lot of human odds and ends ‑ such as the young man carrying the guitar case, who looked about as much like a musician as I looked like Celine Dion. I chased after him and asked him in French if he were here for a concert. “I don’t speak no French,” he said. I asked him again, in English this time, if he were a musician here to perform in Mali.
“I don’t give no interviews neither.”
“What do you have in the guitar case? It looks . . . ”
“Look lady, I’m not here to do no f — in’ talkin’, you unnerstand?”
Our pleasant little exchange was cut short when we had to leap out of the way of a convoy of black Mercedes that screamed to a halt at the base of the stairway. And at that moment, Babani himself, dressed nattily in a navy suit that looked custom tailored to fit his slim frame, appeared at the top of the stairway.
For a few seconds, he stood there smiling and waving like a royal while the crowd went berserk, chanting his name. But then more of those bodyguards quickly swooped in and blocked him from our view as he made his way down the stairway, straight into a black Mercedes ‑ bulletproof ‑ that sped across the tarmac as though the devil himself were on its tail, rather than just a very crestfallen and disappointed crowd of well‑wishers.
In Bamanankan and in French, the family and friends in the crowd berated the army of Florida bodyguards that had kept them from so much as delivering a greeting to their man. But the bodyguards were either deaf or, more likely, didn’t understand a word of either language. I took that opportunity to sneak away, along with my BBC colleague, to find Mamadou, who was waiting to lead us through the angry mob and into the VIP lounge for a quick interview with “the richest man in Mali.”
Babani was seated calmly on a plush leather armchair, and he eyed us coolly as we moved in with our microphones.
“Are you planning to make Mali your home?” I asked.
“Mali is my home,” he said, evenly.
“Yes, but this time are you planning to stay?” I persisted, feeling myself shrinking under that appraising and not at all complimentary stare. It was his eyes ‑ glittery and unnerving as a predator’s that has decided the prey isn’t even worth stalking.
“Only God makes plans for men,” he said. “That is a question you had better ask of God.”
Well, God wasn’t around just then as far as I could tell and I had a report to file, so I headed home, ploughing my way slowly through the chaos of streets. Kilometre after kilometre, the roads into town were lined ten deep with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the man ‑ and just possibly to catch a dollar bill or two. Word had already reached people in the centre of town, some fifteen kilometres away, that each policeman on duty at the airport had been given a crisp new hundred‑dollar bill from Babani.
The nation‑wide hysteria didn’t let up for weeks. Mobs took up permanent residence on the mud road in front of Babani’s villa and he continued to make headlines long after his arrival. At first they were all praise and flattery, full of not very subtle suggestions about what he could do with his money to make Mali a better place ‑ sink it into industry and local processing that might kick‑start a weak, resource‑based economy that relied almost entirely on exporting raw cotton and gold.
(Not So) Great West African Works
Babani, however, didn’t seem to have a head for such long‑term and tedious investments. He preferred outrageous gestures that made instant headlines and magnified the Babani mythology. He handed out a quarter of a million dollars to the Malian soccer team after their victory over Senegal, and then sent his jumbo jet to Dakar to ferry the team back home. Women griots, who sang his praises for hours on end on local radio, received many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
His five‑star hotel on the edge of the Niger River in Bamako did start to take shape, and in another quarter of town suddenly there arose out of the dust a massive new enterprise called “Great West African Works.” Inside those high walls ‑ blinding white ‑ dozens and dozens of dump trucks and earthmovers still bearing Florida license plates came to rest. All this fuelled great expectations of the great works that Babani was going to undertake ‑ roads, buildings, just about all the infrastructure in the world that was so sorely lacking in that Sahelian land.
But nothing happened. Doubts set in. Attitudes changed. People were angered by those unpleasant bullying bodyguards who moved everywhere with Babani. And there was no sign of any work by the Great West African Works. The construction equipment parked there started to disappear under layers of dust and blown sand. The original concerns about the origins of his wealth resurfaced.
In response, Babani broke his silence and appeared on state television late one Sunday night. The journalists immediately asked the question the whole country had been asking for years ‑ how did he get so rich? He retorted that he saw no need for them to ask such a question. Had they ever asked a poor man how he became so poor?
Malian journalists didn’t have any more luck prying information out of him than I had had when he advised me to point my microphone skywards and ask God what plans He had for Babani.
In the end, it turned out that Interpol and not God would decide whether Babani would stay put in Mali. Less than a year after his homecoming, word sped through the town that an international warrant had been issued for his arrest.
Wanted for crimes of “fraud and magic practice”
Immediately, two of the private newspapers that always sang the praises of their benefactor hotly denied the existence of such an arrest warrant. Their line of argument was that Babani had committed no crime except being a good businessman whose success had evoked jealousy in America and in the Arab countries where he had operated. But the rumours persisted and other newspapers published photocopies of the arrest warrant. Thanks to those kind editors, I was eventually able to track down a Malian businessman who did millions of dollars of trade each year with Dubai and was close to the authorities there, who had been chosen as the interlocutor between Dubai and Mali.
He showed me the arrest warrant from Dubai addressed to Mali’s minister of justice, which said: “We, Jasim Mohammed Baqer acting Chief of the Public Prosecution, do hereby order to arrest and apprehend Mr Babani Sissoko, who is charged of committing the crimes of fraud and magic practice . . . we request you to arrest, apprehend and chase him internationally.”
In a letter addressed to the Malian minister of justice, the attorney general of Dubai described how Babani had used ” black magic” to “brainwash” the director of the Islamic Bank of Dubai.
“To perform his act, he took the bank director into an isolated place with flashing lights, and he spoke to him in a guttural voice. The bank director was afraid and asked to be taken back to his house. But Babani told him the voice he was hearing was the voice of the King of Devils. The director then heard the Devil’s voice instruct him to give to Babani all that he asked for. After this brainwashing, Babani and his accomplices received money from the bank director in the form of cash and bank transfers to their personal accounts abroad and by using a credit card issued by the bank.”
I was also shown photographs sent by Dubai to the Malian authorities of the fetishes made up of shells and hair and skin, with which Babani allegedly cast his spell on the director of the Islamic Bank of Dubai.
I sat musing over all these documents, wondering who was telling the truth . . . what was authentic and real in this story. The whole thing ‑ all those documents ‑ looked too real to be fake. But in my mind, it was all too fantastic not to be a work of fiction.
There were photocopies of money transfers made in Babani’s name with the Visa card given him by the Dubai bank. The detailed list for expenditures on that credit card read like a wild spending spree tour down luxury lane, which is exactly what it must have been.
At Mayor’s Jewelers in Miami, for example, between September 13 and 18, 1997, those records showed that Babani’s Visa card drew a total of $200,000 US out of Dubai’s bank, and in January 1998, more than a quarter of a million dollars. All this on an account that was backed up by nothing more substantial than the “trust” that Babani had created between himself and the bank manager, allegedly using the voice of the Devil. The balance column on those credit card records was blank.
In all, the authorities of Dubai were contending that Babani swindled the bank director out of a quarter of a billion dollars. Babani himself could not set foot outside the country without fear of being picked up by Interpol. Then word came that the Swiss and even the Americans were also after him for fraud. In Senegal, three top‑level businessmen with links to Babani were arrested on behest of the Swiss. This was followed by news reports that most of his aircraft, which were parked at home base in Banjul, Gambia, had been seized for non‑payment of staff salaries and bills.
Reports reached Bamako that the US Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was investigating a Florida Senator who had lobbied Babani’s case with a range of top US officials, right up to the American attorney general herself. In exchange for these “favours,” said the reports, the senator was alleged to have received from Babani a Lexus and a condominium in Florida.
Work slowed on that glorious hotel‑to‑be in Bamako and in 1999 came to a complete stop. The formerly white walls of the Great West African Works had been dusted a browner shade of pallid by the weather and by time. Rumours flew that the president of The Gambia had confiscated Babani’s six‑star hotel in the capital, Banjul, and that the Malian “billionaire” was also being sought by a bank in Togo.
And Babani’s reputation, just like his empire, began to crumble. It was said in some disillusioned quarters that he was nothing more than a confidence trickster.
He remained free, although he was keeping a very low profile [and would do so until he ran for Parliament and was elected a few years later]. It was impossible to find out from the Malian attorney general whether they intended to arrest him ‑ his secretary seemed to have had lessons from some of Babani’s musclemen and refused to let meddlesome journalists near his door. The minister of justice admitted that the Interpol warrant for Babani’s arrest was being “processed” but wouldn’t breathe a word more than that, at least not to me.
The Malian authorities were in a difficult position. They were under no legal obligation to arrest Babani on Malian territory and they had no extradition treaty with Dubai. But Mali could ill afford not to comply with demands from Dubai, a major trading partner and an economic colossus compared with Mali. On the other hand, if the Malian authorities did appease their friends abroad by arresting Babani, there were fears of a serious public outcry ‑ and of even more serious embarrassment.
Mali’s president, Alpha Oumar Konaré, and his Prime Minister had publicly refused the luxury vehicles that Babani had publicly offered them. But some Malian newspapers alleged that nine government ministers had not turned down huge cash gifts from the man. There was apparently some fear that if Babani were arrested, he might just sing like a bird and bring down some political heavyweights. He was, after all, a griot whose birthright was song. Then he was elected as mayor of his village, and his visits to the capital became few and far between.
“I’m the most dangerous man in this Mali, here”
And so it rested. I wouldn’t have been any the wiser about where Babani was or what he was up to had it not been for . . . fate. Fate being the marvellous and mischievous thing it is, Babani had acquired a small house almost directly across the street from us, ostensibly for one of his wives. It wasn’t clear exactly how many wives he actually had around the world, or which of them were official ‑ but it was generally thought that he was legally wedded to four.
Whether the lovely woman who moved in across the street from us one sunny day was included in that official list didn’t matter. She and her children quickly endeared themselves to the entire neighbourhood, and while she knew that we all knew who she was, she never referred to Babani by name or let on that she knew we knew. She called him only “mon mari” (my husband).
At first, he came to visit her a couple of times a week, arriving after midnight and leaving again by four in the morning. She showed up for little informal neighbourhood get‑togethers sporting some of the most magnificent jewels ‑ diamond and sapphire earrings with ring and bracelets to match ‑ that I, for one, had ever seen close‑up.
I was delighted she’d moved in because she was wonderful company and so were her children. I stopped complaining about the furore that the arrival of her husband created on our narrow little mud alley ‑ when hundreds and hundreds of people came on the run each time his convoy of Cadillacs or Mercedes (no license plates) and those dreaded thugs who tagged along in overland vehicles pulled up late at night.
But it was her seven‑year‑old son who managed to work his way deepest into my affections. Amin [not his real name] was constantly in our house, tagging along behind me and asking me point‑blank how much our piano cost, or if it was true that the American school cost more than a million francs (CFA) a year and did I know that he himself had billions ‑ whether this was in dollars or CFA francs was not clear.
He seemed a lonely kid whom some children in the neighbourhood tended to shun or tease mercilessly. He was bossy, demanding, far too old for his years, bragging incessantly about how rich his father was even when it seemed that his father’s fortune had not just eroded, but imploded and the man was unable to leave his country without being arrested.
And yet that small boy knew exactly how to get around me and get what he wanted. He came almost every day to borrow a bicycle, to ride up and down the road. But twice he had come back muddied and bleeding when he fell, and twice he had got lost. After that, I told him he was to drive the bicycle around the compound, but not to go on the street. And to spare his pride, I was being protective because I didn’t want any big boys to attack him or steal the bicycle from him. He looked aghast.
“Auntie,” he said, giving me a tough he‑man look from his diminutive height, “don’t you worry about thieves. I know how to protect myself and I will also protect you. You come with me and you’ll see how I do it. You see how I do this with my eyes?” he said, squinting and giving me a reptilian glance I’d seen once before, at Bamako airport when I dared to put a question to Babani.
“You see this?” said Amin, pointing now to the narrowed slits of his eyes. “I make my eyes like this, see, and everyone will run. I can tell you one thing, Auntie,” he said, now pounding his little ribcage. “Me, Amin, standing here before you, I’m the most dangerous man in this Mali here.”
I started to laugh, then stopped. Once upon a time a year earlier, when people told me the story of Babani and his exploits, I had also laughed it all off as sheer fantasy. So I stood there on the roadside and regarded this boy ‑ a fascinating kid with the make‑believe demeanour of an international tycoon‑gangster five times his age ‑ and smiled.
“I believe you, Amin,” I said. “But you’re still not taking that bicycle on the street. And furthermore, you forgot to say please when you asked for it.”
Suddenly the slit eyes were gone and he was grinning. “Please, can I take the bicycle on the street,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Even if you are the most dangerous man in this Mali, here.”
A postscript from 2018
We lost touch with Amin, his sister and his mother when we left Bamako in 2003. This was a year after Babani Sissoko was elected to Mali’s parliament, which accorded him immunity from prosecution. I once saw him in his parliamentary seat, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. And although I still have a large file of newspaper clippings and a photocopy of that arrest warrant, I really hadn’t thought about him for years until I read Brigitte Scheffer’s BBC article this past week. So many memories, and so many mysteries.